O. Theodor Benfey

Born: October 31, 1925 | Berlin, DE

O. Theodor Benfey was raised in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, but traveled to England, where he was a student during the war, and then to the United States for a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University. He developed an interest in physical organic chemistry and structure, and the history of chemistry, and recounts pursued a career as a professor of chemistry and history of science at Haverford, Earlham, and Guilford Colleges. Benfey also had a parallel career as a writer, translator, and editor; he provided details of the various translations he has published, and recalled his term as editor of Chemistry magazine during the interview. The interview concludes with his memories of his studies in Japan and China and his current interests. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0094
No. of pages: 119
Minutes: 350

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
24 May and 5 June 1991
Chemical Heritage Foundaiton

Abstract of Interview

O. Theodor Benfey begins the interview with a description of his childhood in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. He tells of his experiences in England, where he was a student during the war, and then his move to the United States for a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University. He describes the development of his interest in physical organic chemistry and structure, and the history of chemistry, and recounts his career as a professor of chemistry and history of science at Haverford, Earlham, and Guilford Colleges. Benfey also tells of his parallel career as a writer, translator and editor and gives details of the various translations he has published, and recalls his term as editor of Chemistry magazine. He concludes with his memories of his studies in Japan and China and his current interests. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1945 University College London BSc Chemistry
1947 University College London PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Columbia University

1947 to 1948
London University Post-doctoral Traveling Fellow

Haverford College

1948
Instructor of Chemistry
1948 to 1955
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
1955 to 1956
Associate Professor of Chemistry

Harvard University

1955 to 1956
Research Fellow

Earlham College

1956 to 1973
Associate Professor of Chemistry and History of Science; Professor of Chemistry and History of Science
1971 to 1972
Chairman of the Chemistry Department

Guilford College

1973 to 1988
Dana Professor of Chemistry and History of Science
1977 to 1979
Clerk of Faculty

International Christian University

1985 to 1986
Visiting Professor of Chemistry and Research Fellow

Chemical Heritage Foundation

1989 to 1992
Editor, Beckman Center News; Othmer Library News; Chemical Heritage

University of Pennsylvania

1990 to 1992
Adjunct Professor, Department of History and Sociology of Science

Honors

Year(s) Award
1961

Doan Distinguished Teacher Travel Award, Earlham College

1967

Manufacturing Chemists Association Chemistry Teacher Award

1967 to 1968

Danforth Foundation E. Harris Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching

1970 to 1971

Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research and Study Award, Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan

Table of Contents

Family, Childhood, and Early Education
1

Grows up as a Lutheran of Jewish ancestry in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. Emigrates to England to live with the Mendl family and attend Watford Grammar School, while parents move to United States. Enjoys math classes, and interst in science develops.

University College, London
11

Moves to Aberystwyth during war. Has some contact with Ingold during undergraduate years. Becomes a Quaker. Insists on conducting only non-war-related research as graduate student. Studies aliphatic substitution and solvent effects. Not encouraged to keep abreast of outside research.

Postdoctoral Traveling Fellowship, Columbia University
27

Immigrates to United States, reunites with family. Studies mercury-catalyzed solvolysis and olefin formation. Considers switching to medicine.

Haverford College
35

Teaches physical organic chemistry mechanisms and chemistry for non-majors. Supervises undergraduate research. Receives Research Corporation grant for summer research. Publishes on history of chemistry. Active in Philadelphia Organic Chemists Club and Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Meets and marries Rachel Thomas.

Harvard University
45

Lives with parents in Cambridge. Works with Conant's group. Enjoys studying the lives and original works of great chemists. Works on translations. Teaches history and philosophy of science courses. Studies structural theory, and, with Westheimer, the bipyridyl problem.

Earlham College
51

Continues bipyridyl research. Works with Strong to develop new chemistry curriculum based on conceptual division and to create and publish Chemical Bond Approach materials. Edits Chemistry magazine. Continues publishing translations and history of chemistry. Becomes chair of HIST. Interest in geometry and structure increases. Professor of both chemistry and history of science.

Guilford College
77

Urged by Hobbs to join faculty. Educates many for industrial positions. Students able to cross-register with other Greensboro schools. Active interdepartmental faculty interaction. Dana Professor of Chemistry and History of Science.

Far Eastern Studies
83

Becomes interested in China and Japan while at Earlham. Studies Japanese and lives in Japan for a year to explore history of science in the Far East. Especially intrigued by uses of geometry in Eastern culture.

Early Retirement
88

Retires early to devote time to other interests. Becomes Editor at the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry. Moves to Bryn Gweled.

Notes
91
Index
99

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.